Saint Agatha: The Iconography

In Catania, Sicily, the natal day of St. Agatha, Virgin and Martyr. In the time of the Emperor Decius, under the judge Quinctianus, she was beaten, imprisoned, and tortured on the rack. Here breasts were cut off, and she was rolled on burning coals and potsherds. Finally she died in prison while praying to God. – Roman Martyrology for February 5

Portraits of St. Agatha in the West are readily identified by the presence of a platter holding her severed breasts, as at right. Sometimes she also holds the pincers used to remove them (example). In one image just one severed breast hangs by a cord from her fingers. Her hair is usually long and blond, as at right, and she often wears a diaphanous veil (example).

The veil may be due to her early portraiture in the East. In a 6th-century mosaic in the Euphrasian Basilica in Poreč, she is presented as a noblewoman in a veil. Her portrait in Monreale Cathedral gives her a veil and follows the Eastern tradition of having her hold a hand cross.


In the first part of Agatha's story, she spurns the pagan provost Quintianus' offer of marriage, so he consigns her to a brothel to soften her resolve. But the madam finds her intractable, so the provost calls her back to him, argues and threatens, and finally has her put in prison.

The next day he has her stretched on a device that Caxton renders as "a tree" (that is, a beam or pole) and Ryan as "the rack." Most narrative images ignore the device, but one manuscript illumination envisions a horizontal beam held up between the Y-shaped tops of two trees that have been trimmed for the occasion. Another image, a German fresco, shows the saint hanging from a similar but more permanent-looking structure of hewn wood. The same kind of structure appears in an illumination of a 10th or 11th century Passio Sanctae Agathae (Winstead, 31).

Both those images actually show Agatha at the next stage of her passion, the cutting off of her breasts, which is the most common element in the narrative images. The implement used is normally a pair of pincers, or sometimes two pair, as in the second picture at right.

When the saint still refuses to deny her faith, Quintianus orders that she be imprisoned without food, drink, or medicine for her wounds. At this point she is visited by St. Peter in the guise of an old man. In the Passio, Peter simply brings Agatha new breasts. But the Golden Legend's account from two or three centuries later is more complicated. Not recognizing Peter, Agatha refuses human healing because "I have my Lord Jesus Christ, and he by a single word can cure everything.…If he so wills, he can cure me instantly." Peter reveals himself, tells her she is healed in Jesus' name, and vanishes. It is not until then that she prays and finds that her breasts have been restored.

Despite the widespread influence of the Golden Legend, I have found only two images that follow faithfully this complex account of Agatha's cure, one by depicting the saint's refusal and one dramatizing Peter's reply. The few other images I have found, two by Alessandro Turchi and one by Giovanni Lanfranco (third picture at right), go with the earlier version in which Peter heals the saint directly.

Churches dedicated to St. Agatha face the problem of how to present the patron's lurid tortures to the public. Throwing caution to the winds, St. Agatha's in Trastevere has a large canvas behind the main altar showing the removal of her breasts in full detail. Saint Agatha's in Sant'Agata da Feltra also has a large canvas of the saint behind the main altar, but this one is more PG-rated. Presented by another saint, Agatha offers the breasts on a plate to the Virgin and Child. She is fully dressed and has a figure ample enough to remind one of the restoration of her body that night in prison. The breasts on the platter are abstract enough that one does not have to think about them.


The Golden Legend's story of St. Lucy begins with a visit to the sepulchre of St. Agatha, who intercedes with Christ to heal Lucy's mother of a bloody flux. The Metropolitan Museum in New York has a painting of this episode by Giovanni di Bartolommeo Cristiani.

Prepared in 2014 by Richard Stracke, Emeritus Professor of English, Augusta University, revised 2015-09-16.


Detail from a Syracuse Virgin Enthroned, mid-15th cent. (See the description page.)

Sebastiano del Piombo, The Passion of St. Agatha, 1520 (See description page)

Giovanni Lanfranco, St. Peter Healing St. Agatha, 1614 (See description page)


  • Primary attribute: breasts on a platter
  • Attribute used from time to time: pincers
  • Attribute of martyrdom: palm branch



  • Feast day: February 5
  • Died in 251